Fathers

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My Dad is dying, slowly, in a living room on an island in Maine. He dies slowly of an ebb and flow disease: diabetes. His version of the Big D is complicated by the Big A: alcoholism. It turns out that alcoholism can cause diabetes, and once your body has been hijacked by this syndrome, continuing to drink just turns the dial up on its destructiveness.

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My mother really wanted me to come to Christmas this year because, as she said, “he isn’t doing well and it won’t really get any better”. I stopped going home for Christmas three Christmases ago, when I went to Enchanted Rock with Cody, instead. I camped with lots of other families under a giant, cold full moon, and thought about what making new traditions might mean. Cody and I have spent Christmas together ever since. Christmas, to me, is a holiday fraught with expectations (mine and others), disaster (real and imaginary) and has never held the beauty of the holiday that I see displayed in films and songs.

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I think my mother really tried to create that Christmas magic, and she probably still does. I just remember the harshness of being told a plate was worth more than I was when I placed cookies on it one year. I remember one year receiving boxes and boxes and boxes of presents, including piles of strange clothes that I thought someone should know I would never wear, under an LL Bean Christmas tree that was delivered by the postman on my birthday. That same year, my mom bought a first edition of the Canterbury Tales illustrated by her favorite Arthur Rackham (she has told me the story of how she once could have bought a first edition of the Lord of the Rings from a bookstore in London for 5 pounds, but didn’t have the 5 pounds to spare), and set it on a table behind a sofa in the formal living room, specially curated by her friend Oona the interior decorator. I remember the room curved at the front, framed with beautiful, tall windows, perfect for that giant Christmas tree. The rub is that we only spent one Christmas in that house: the year after, my Dad lost his job in the oil crash of the early 1990s, had a nervous breakdown, and we had to sell the house, the cars, and that 1st edition of the Canterbury Tales. He never recovered from the fact that we had to move into a rental house: I remember him disappearing for awhile I think, and after that, never coming out of the large master bedroom in that dark 1970s house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I suppose he never really did emerge again.

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I have this memory of my dad and myself. I must have been very small: about 6 perhaps. I have a nephew-in-law now named Peter, who is 6, and it must have been when I was about his size. My dad and I were climbing on rocks on the beaches of Maine, over by The Ovens in Salisbury Cove. We climbed onto a big rock that slowly became engulfed by a rising tide; I don’t exactly know how that happened, because now, as an adult, I understand how long it takes for the water to rise. Nevertheless, the memory remains; stuck on the rock we were, and my father had to carry me to shore.

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My Dad is a big, barrel-chested man who used to be 6′-2″. He is a lone wolf and a person who doesn’t fit in: two ways that we are similar. I was chatting with a friend a while ago about how our self-identification as people who don’t belong, who are special or unique, reinforces some pretty unhealthy patterns that contribute to all sorts of ills: like codependency, seeking out bad boyfriends to “help” or “fix”, a lack of self-awareness, self-love and feeling like success is an option. My dad never spent time looking in Life’s mirror: perhaps it was too frightening. He ran away and into anger, reckless spending, and the bottoms of gin bottles.

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It took me a long time to let go of the anger I had toward him: I would ask for years: why isn’t he like other fathers? Why does he seem to love everything but his family? Why does he do these crazy things all the time? Why does he throw stuff? Why does he crash cars? Why does he spend money he doesn’t have? Doesn’t he understand how much it hurts all of us? It took me years, really until this past year, to realize that he is locked in a prison of his own making and it’s almost as if there is no one else in that prison: like a man locked in a cell on an island with nothing but his thoughts and a shovel, he just digs that cell deeper and deeper into the mountainside, when the choice to escape is his to make. Even last year, at the age of 77, he somehow managed to open a series of credit card accounts and spend $10,000. When we asked him what he had bought for that amount of money, he really didn’t know.

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I have been on holiday break from school for 2 weeks now and, honestly, haven’t done much except cooking and organizing, helping Cody clear our land for our wedding, and watch movies. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized that all the films have had one common thread: fathers. Fathers who are good, fathers who are bad: fathers who are confused and don’t know what to do. Fathers who are trying, and fathers who are useless at trying. Fathers who are drunk, and fathers who are teetotalers. None are perfect, although a few match what I would have liked to have had. But, in some ways, like I said to my brother earlier today, perhaps we are just here to listen to these two crazy people who are our parents. After all, do any of us truly actually make sense? Probably not: but I do like to think that I try to be happy, to think of others, and I am trying very hard to be a good partner to a very sweet man who, as I type this, is drilling holes in a concrete wall so that I can hang up a mirror. That sweet man lost his father almost 11 years ago to brain cancer. His father, just as imperfect as any of them, is gone and he doesn’t even have a way to talk to him and become frustrated at his inadequacies and nonsense. All he has is memories of an imperfect man: the same that I will, one day, have.

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Where Is Fancy Bred? In the Heart, or in the Head?

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I am a bad listener.

It’s true. My name is Patience and I am a bad listener. I am a bad listener to complaints. I think I might be an ok listener other times…my mom’s friend told me a while back that it is because I am so good at coming up with solutions to problems.

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As a problem-solver who grew up with an alcoholic parent, it’s inevitable (I think) that my problem solving ability gives way to codependent strategies like: “I can do this for you!” “Just listen to my idea!” which both eventually give way to frustration at the other person for not doing those two things, and then frustration becomes anger, and then you both are fighting with each other in the kitchen and no one is happy.

I find relationships, especially the one I am in with my fiance, to be challenging in the best ways. Cody shows me myself in harsh relief, and shows me himself in a clear light. Sometimes these views go together and our opinions are the same, and sometimes we are standing in the kitchen, him leaning against the sink and I against the refrigerator, aghast at what we are putting each other through.

One of the many things I am thankful about my relationship is that we always fight fair, and so far, come to a place where we can agree to take a breath, seek perspective, apologize where necessary, and assure the other person that we are not truly angry and that the other one is very loved.

Coming from an alcoholic family in which either nothing was discussed or someone was throwing a plate or crashing a car, this is my greatest space for growth: how to be a responsive and loving human, despite when, and maybe especially so, I am most uncomfortable by being shown my self in the mirror of the soul.

As I type this and think how grateful I am for all of it, despite its momentary pain, bewilderment and frustration, I am sitting with a small kitten, under a handmade quilt that I named “Find Your Heart”. Indeed.

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From Both Sides Now

It is a strange but comforting memory.

It is made of a wooden door with glass in the front, and squeaky stairs that go up, and then an old jukebox bathed in amber light, and lastly, an ice cream counter. It is a place in Galveston, a town about an hour south of Houston, where my family went together many times when I was a child.

There was a store there that sold imports, I think. It had wooden bins full of little things like beads. It had shelves on the walls with fabrics folded upon them. In this store, just after my grandfather died, I was wandering around and looked up to see a very white haired man in a button up, loose-fitting, short-sleeved shirt, wearing glasses and a camera hanging from his neck. It was my grandfather, and by the time I looked back at him, upon recognition, he had, of course, disappeared.

Galveston has a long, tall, cement wall that stretches along its seashore and was built to protect its citizens from damaging hurricanes, like the one in 1900. Some parts of it are painted with murals. Some parts of it are dotted with seashell shops, which sell lots of seashells not native to Texas at all, and many of those pretty shell chandelier-hanging lamp things. I always wanted one of those.

When we had the dog, Bear was his name, we would take him to the beach and he would run around. Once, my cousin Bruce came to visit from New Jersey, and he took Bear way out into the water. The dog panicked, and clawed Bruce’s back to bits trying to save himself in Bruce’s arms.

We used to stay in a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula that belonged to our family’s lawyer. It was a brown house, made of wood, on stilts, and, at night, you could go out to the dunes with a flashlight and hunt ghost crabs. One visit, we discovered that the house had been robbed and things tossed about, as if in a storm. The two policemen who came demonstrated to us, flabbergasted, how they thought two people had gotten into a fight and thrown each other around. My parents didn’t agree with the theory, but I don’t remember ever staying there after that.

When I look back at time, and try to piece the story together, as I have been wont to do of late, I have been looking back to see when the family functioned well and when there was evidence of happiness and contentment. I think it ended just before my grandfather died, when my parents lost their house, their car, and many of their possessions. We moved into a small rental house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I lived in a tiny room, which I loved, and I had curtains around my bed. I used to sneak out of the huge window and go and walk in the park, later whilst smoking cigarettes.

Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, a time I only remember because I was in a Texas History class at Knox Junior High School when it happened. My teacher was not a good teacher, but did have a slight obsession with Dan Fogelberg of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The only three things I remember from her class were Dan Fogelberg, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and learning a computer software that, I think, was some precursor to PowerPoint.

During that time, I have very few memories of my parents together or apart. I remember being alone a lot. I remember my brother playing with all the kids in the street all the time, and that once we had a massive, neighborhood-wide pinecone war. I remember doing my homework on a blanket in the front yard, and waving every day to the same lady in the same car. After a bit of time, she stopped and introduced herself. She was Irish and lived down the road a bit. I went to her house for tea. She became a great friend to me and we would talk and have tea; I remember she had a wonderful tea towel collection. I remember my mom coming to pick me up there one evening.

That time is shrouded, and soon after, we moved into another house, the one in which we lived when I graduated from high school. Come to think of it, that was the house with the large window from which I snuck out. All I remember of that time, in the house with the duck on the door, is darkness (it was a dark house). I remember my dad being in the bedroom all the time, and I remember not understanding why there was no one home and it was hard and dark, scary and confusing. I remember buying groceries for the family at the grocery store, and coming home to put them away. I remember doing laundry, and making sure my brother was all right. I remember getting into wearing vintage corduroy mens’ jackets. I remember catching the bus. I remember that sweet old neighbor, whose name I have forgotten.